Introduction to Mark

What is a Gospel?

Mark’s Gospel is a collection of the deeds and message of Jesus, held in the collective memory of Mark’s community of believers. It is neither a biography (a “life of Jesus”), nor a theological treatise, nor a text prepared expressly to help prayer. In this it is unlike any modern literary work. Mark selected and arranged events in a loose storyline (not necessarily in chronological order). The narrative was essentially a series of dramatic tableaux that picked up what Mark and his community, from their faith-filled vantage point, saw to be the implications for them of the life and message of Jesus. Against the background of their changing situation and ever-new questions, Mark endeavoured through his writing to translate Jesus’ message of conversion into the practicalities of his own situation.

The stories he chose to use were stories that no doubt had been told and retold many times over the years, pondered on at length, with details selectively emphasised (or forgotten), as the meaning of Jesus’ life and death and his impact on the community had gradually become clearer. This Jesus was a Jew from Galilee, crucified in Jerusalem forty or so years previously (probably the year 30 A.D.), on a political charge, by order of the Roman military authority occupying Judaea. Mark and his community believed that this Jesus, whom they had made the centre of their lives, was raised to life by God and was alive with an utterly new and different human life. In line with the concluding scene of his text, he had met them in Galilee and, though not visibly present among them, powerfully influenced their lives.

The Gospel was based on the memories preserved in the communities. The details of actual events and conversations were not accurately noted and recorded at the time they happened. 

Is the Gospel  Historical? 

Any event is perceived through the sifting apparatus of an observer's capacity to comprehend and understand. Different people witnessing the same event will absorb its meaning and even take in its details and prioritise them differently.
Mark’s story of Jesus did not present a documentary recording but a reconstruction drawn from people’s sometimes second or third-hand recollections and made many years after the events. These memories were held within a faith community that had its own particular cultural needs, questions and perceptions of what was relevant and what was not. Theirs was an age and culture concerned more with meanings of events than with accurate reporting of concrete details. We do a disservice to ourselves, and to the participants in the narrative, to interpret the story with a literal mind-set.

We do not know the author of the text. An early tradition identified the gospel with “Mark”, but this may have been more an educated guess than an historical certainty. It does not matter. There is no agreement among scholars today where the text originated. Most would agree that it was written shortly before the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D., possibly while the Jewish war of resistance against the Roman armies was in progress.